Heartless

Ambition can be a double-edged sword, and writer/director Philip Ridley’s first film in 14 years is nothing if not ambitious. In Heartless, the veteran filmmaker juggles such heavy, heady themes as human suffering, religion, the value of physical beauty in a society consumed by fear, and our seemingly universal inability to accept ourselves for who we...read more

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Reviewed by Jason Buchanan

Ambition can be a double-edged sword, and writer/director Philip Ridley’s first film in 14 years is nothing if not ambitious. In Heartless, the veteran filmmaker juggles such heavy, heady themes as human suffering, religion, the value of physical beauty in a society consumed by fear, and our seemingly universal inability to accept ourselves for who we really are -- all within the imaginative framework of a dark, Faustian fable. But when you’ve got that many balls in the air, it’s only a matter of time before they all come crashing down; that’s precisely the problem that Ridley runs into in Heartless, a commendable film that displays fine craftsmanship and touches upon some challenging themes, but gradually becomes so muddled that it fails to have any lasting impact.

Twenty-five year old Jamie (Jim Sturgess) lives with his mother on the East End of London. The son of a professional photographer who died nearly a decade ago, he works in his brother’s studio by day, and drifts through the streets shooting urban landscapes by night. Ever since Jamie was a young boy, he has been a social outcast due to the unsightly, heart-shaped birthmark that covers half of his face. Girls would look upon him with pity and disgust, while boys would ridicule him until he simply withdrew from the world. Now, as reports of violent attacks on the streets flood the nightly news, Jamie begins catching glimpses of mysterious, shrieking hooded figures in the streets, and begins to suspect that they are demonic in nature. Later, when tragedy strikes Jamie’s family, the frightened photographer purchases a black market handgun for self-defense. Shortly thereafter, Jamie is summoned to a derelict tenement building in the center of town, where the mysterious Papa B (Joseph Mawle) offers him a unique opportunity: help the self-proclaimed Patron Saint of Random Violence spread chaos in the name of social progress, and in exchange, Papa B will remove the blemish that has cast a dark shadow over Jamie’s entire life. Unable to resist the opportunity to have his deepest wish granted, Jamie accepts, and his birthmark miraculously disappears. Upon returning to his apartment, Jamie meets and falls in love with a beautiful young model named Tia (Clemence Posey), and prepares to start his new life. Only then does he discover that Papa B wasn’t entirely forthcoming when he described Jamie’s end of the bargain, and that his contribution to the chaos would be considerably more gruesome than they had agreed upon. Desperate to retain his new face and hold on to the love of a beautiful woman, Jamie soon realizes that should he dare to disobey Papa B’s demands, he will be condemned to an eternity of suffering.

In the past decade, Europe has experienced serious problems with youth violence, and those fears have been reflected in films such as Them, Eden Lake, and, most recently, the serious-minded Michael Caine revenge flick Harry Brown. But while those films largely focused on the grim consequences of this disturbing trend, Ridley takes the opportunity to explore the root causes by examining how our own self-loathing can eventually lead us to commit heinous acts that stem more from our own insecurities than from any malicious intent. In one of the early scenes of Heartless, Jamie is singled out as “one of the good guys” by a frustrated shop owner who has just been robbed. Through his interactions with his family and his reactions to the troubling news reports about a vicious, senseless murder, we know this to be true. But fear can lead us to make decisions that we wouldn’t necessarily make when thinking clearly, and by exploiting Jamie’s fear of spending the rest of his life alone, Papa B tricks him into believing that there is a magic bullet capable of erasing all of his problems in the blink of an eye. Whether it’s the skin cream that will erase the years from your face or the miracle potion that will put hair back on your head, chances are we’ve all been tempted to succumb to these convincing sales pitches despite knowing well that we’re setting ourselves up for a letdown. It’s when that letdown comes that we’re at our most vulnerable, and willing to do practically anything to alleviate our pain.

Faustian fables are nothing new, though by setting his story in a troubled society, skillfully folding contemporary issues together with supernatural story elements, and creating his own unique mythology, Ridley displays a formidable talent for breathing new life into a somewhat clichéd storyline. Though as bold, fascinating, and beautifully executed as Heartless is, the further it goes along, the less cohesive it becomes until the baffling climax, a fickle misstep that raises more questions than it answers by going directly against the very foundation the story was constructed upon.

But it’s the positive aspects of Heartless, not necessarily the film’s faults, that make its failures all the more pronounced; cinematographer Matt Gray’s moody, widescreen camera work alone is nearly enough to warrant a recommendation, and memorable supporting performances from Timothy Spall and Eddie Marsan make Heartless a film that Anglophiles will be eager to seek out. Sturgess, as well, does a commendable job of carrying the film – his convincing transformation from wounded, insecure recluse to confident yet vulnerable victim bringing the most compelling aspects of Ridley’s script to vivid life – but in the end it’s the writer/director’s unwillingness to fully commit to his own inspired ideas that makes Heartless more a compelling misfire than the highly original modern fairy-tale that it aspires to be.

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